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Five favorite stories: Nathan Hansen

Part of CEEF's funding for Dew Days came from an Easter carnival at Meadowview Elementary School.

A teenage boy and a sack full of cash

1. A good news story gets people talking. And it's hard to imagine many local stories this year started more conversations than the March 19 tale of a 16-year-old Farmington boy who turned into Dakota County's own Robin Hood after he found a plastic grocery bag stuffed with about $17,000 in cash one day as he rode his bike to school. I suspect there were a lot of people who spent time that week talking about what they would have done in that situation.

Would you turn it in? Would you give it to charity? Would you skip school and head straight to the mall?

And who, by the way, leaves nearly 20 grand in the ditch?

The student in question, who was never publicly identified, gave away about $11,000 that day to people he thought needed it. He gave $1,200 to an aide on a bus that serves the school. And while it wasn't exactly the right thing to do it was admirable in its way.

Even if the story had ended there it probably would have been one of my favorites of 2009. But like the kid himself, this was the local news story that kept on giving.

As Dakota County chief deputy Dave Bellows said at the time, when you find large sums of money just lying around, there's probably a story behind it.

And boy, was there. The money, it turns out, was traced back to an investigation by the Dakota County Drug Task Force. On March 9, task force agents were following 36-year-old John Taylor Jordan, a suspect in an ongoing investigation, when they lost sight of him around a curve -- right in the area where the student found his windfall the following day. When police searched the area following the kid's philanthropic spree they found four, gallon-size baggies of marijuana. A fifth bag got turned in later. That's on top of the 200 marijuana plants and the grow lights police found when they searched Jordan's Farmington home the same day he did his cash toss.

Add it all up, then, and we've got drugs, money, charity and existential questions about the nature of humanity all in one story. Throw in a kitten getting rescued from a tree and you've pretty much got the perfect local news day. As it is, you've got a one of the most memorable stories of 2009.

Speaking of local kids doing the right thing, at the end of March I got to sit down with seven Farmington High School graduates who found themselves back home unexpectedly after flooding of the Red River forced the evacuation of Concordia College, where they were all attending school.

The evacuation left all of the students wondering when life would get back to normal, and what kind of damage they would find when they eventually got back to school. But before they packed up and headed for home the students did everything they could to keep the city safe. All seven worked long hours, sometimes as long as 13 hours a day, to fill and stack sandbags to protect the campus and the surrounding neighborhoods.

All seven said it was never a question of whether they would help, just how long they could do it. They came home every night covered in dirt with muscles aching.

"You've got girls out there that, you don't know which weighs more -- them or the sandbag," said Nate Rowan, a 2005 FHS graduate who was among the Concordia students who put in long hours.

The students had fascinating stories of braving snow and cold and of watching neighborhoods come together. They saw prison inmates shoveling sand into bags held open by 4-year-old children. They provided a local connection to a story that was getting a whole lot of national attention and they reflected pretty well on the kinds of students Farmington High School produces.

They were also whole lot of fun to talk to.

Exploring the elevator

One of the best things about working for a newspaper is that it gives you an excuse to be nosy. I've spent 12-plus years now working in a city where a century-old grain elevator is one of the most prominent downtown features. And yet, while I grasped the basic concept of the elevator and its role agricultural world it has always been an incomplete understanding. Corn goes in. Corn comes out. Someone gets paid and the world of the farmers just keeps on turning.

I tried to fix that in November when I spent some time hanging out at the Feely Elevator. I talked to farmers. I talked to manager Mark Malecha, who was remarkably coherent considering he'd spent most of the month working 15-plus hours a day to get all of the harvested corn in. I even learned about those little pink things that had been floating around downtown all fall and coating cars left parked too long at the city hall lot.

From what I can gather, this was a good year for farmers, and a great year for the elevator. And I think the whole thing provided an interesting story and some pretty good photos.

I don't think I can call myself an expert on grain elevator operations just yet. But I know more than I did, and I had a lot of fun learning.

A night of music

I also had a lot of fun hanging out one November night at the Ugly Mug in north Farmington. For much of the year I had been putting notices in our calendar about monthly open mic nights at the coffee shop/bar, and I'd been meaning to check them out.

Open mic nights can be a disaster if you don't attract good talent, but that doesn't seem to be a problem at the Ugly Mug. It helps to have someone like Marv Gohman to keep things moving. He's spent years making music, including some high profile gigs. He's written songs that have appeared in television shows and movies.

Gohman can play a few songs if nobody else shows up to perform, and he can jump in on guitar, fiddle or mandolin if the people who take the stage want someone to accompany him.

It's impressive to hear two people who've never met play music like they've known each other for years.

The music that gets played is pretty eclectic. This particular November evening started with folk music, moved on to hair metal-inspired instrumental rock from a couple of Farmington teens who were playing their first public show together, and concluded with a jazz jam session. Some performances were more polished than others, but they were all entertaining.

Doing this job involves working a lot of nights. Sometimes it feels like a chore. On this particular night it was a pleasure.

A band on the rise

Speaking of music, I don't know that I'll ever love the songs Third Supply plays, but I'm already a big fan of the Farmington-band.

I talked to the three Farmington High School graduates who make up the band in February, as they prepared to open for Black Stone Cherry, a national act all three band members admired. They were clearly excited -- enough that they talked about giving up smoking in the week leading up to the show so their voices would be fresh -- and their enthusiasm was infectious.

Tony Zylka, Ryan Jahnz and Derek Reiten were in a band when they were students at FHS, but back then it was more about putting on a show than knowing what they were doing. They liked the image of being in a band even if they couldn't always identify the instruments they were playing.

Since reconnecting a few years ago they've started to take things more seriously and it seems to be paying off. They play regularly around the Twin Cities, and they've started to build a following.

It's a big deal for a band that, at least in February, did much of its rehearsing in a cramped upstairs bedroom of a lonely house near Highway 52. Look out the windows and about all you can see is cows.

According to the group's Facebook page they're in the final stages of producing their first album. Seems like a good end to a good year.